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.Mac: Future of a sleeping giant?

TUAW Interviews Merlin Mann

My tall, new friend Scott McNulty interviewed me yesterday for TUAW's Macworld coverage -- unintentionally providing me a fine bully pulpit from which to perpetuate my baseless theories and half-baked forecasts about how Apple might eat the lunches of about three different industries over the next couple years.

If they can pull it off, if they can fix .Mac, and if they have the vision to re-imagine themselves as the company who makes your entire digital world safe, fun, ubiquitous, and flawlessly integrated.

Anyhow, on with the motley, but stay tuned after the jump for value-added hand-waving.

So, exactly what the hell nonsense am I talking about here?

[Admission: This is a super-fast first draft of an admittedly far-fetched idea that's still taking shape, but I really wanted to get it out of my head while it's still fresh-ish]

Gulliver is tall

As the record shows, I'm practically useless as a technology forecaster, but I can't help feeling that Apple is slow-broasting some really interesting changes over the next year or two, centering around the currently enfeebled .Mac service (cough, cough, cough).

In a nutshell, based on products and services -- both released and announced -- as well as opportunities presented in the marketplace, I wouldn't be surprised to see any or all of the following changes from Apple (roughly in order).

  • Basic .Mac services will not only become free, but they may be required in order to take full advantage of future functionalities.
  • For the majority of .Mac power users who want more of whatever the offerings are at a given time, modest to crazy-expensive upgrades will be available.
  • .Mac will expand in several directions over time, to include:
    • Order of magnitude more storage on pay accounts
    • Automated backups (via something like Mozy)
    • "in-the-cloud" hosting of all your Mac stuff, including "~/Library/" contents; music, photos, and videos; plus every document you ever make.
  • The Preference syncing in .Mac now will be taken to the next level, to a point where a tweaked window view here is also reflected there (ala Migration Assistant?)
  • In sum, .Mac will become your secure Home directory. Or, more properly, it becomes the master copy from which all your hardware, hard drives, and flash media will in some fashion be synced.

But, why?

Well, in essence, your Mac Pro, your MacBook Air, your iPhone, your iPods nano and shuffle, and your Apple TV would all become agents for using the stuff you've stored on .Mac. Heavy (invisible, background) use of rsync-like diffs-syncing (ala Time Capsule?) will ensure that all your devices have the stuff they need, and in the appropriate size and format; e.g., 720p version of Weekend at Bernie's 2 goes to the TV; more modest size goes to the iPhone, etc. The value and attraction to consumers strikes me as obvious; on the same day, your electronic world becomes ubiquitous, backed-up, and very easy to maintain or access from anyplace.

If this is anywhere near do-able, Apple would be taking the concepts behind Spotlight, Time Machine, iTunes, and Smart Folders to their logical conclusion, creating an environment where Apple sits at the center of all your electronic needs, contextually syncing and serving what you need, when you need it, in a totally seamless fashion.

In conjunction, I'll bet we're going to see an explosion in alliances with companies like Google (for online apps), plus a heavy push for companies like Amazon and Disney to build iPhone apps that will leverage access to both the cloud and your increasingly PayPal-like .Mac account. ("Buy the song I just heard on this Disneyland ride, deliver four sets of Mickey Mouse ears to our hotel room, plus show me the best vegan snack within 5 minutes' walk of where I'm standing").

Think about it: a new lightweight laptop with a small hard drive; an iPhone that's getting dangerously close to becoming a remote for your home and life; an Apple TV that doesn't even require a computer; an iPod Touch that (rather mysteriously) now needs your credit card info and a login to get new apps onto the device. Then, fold in a couple big spoonfuls of the company's clearly increasing interest in becoming the people who sell or rent you the entertainment media that goes on all the machines you bought from them. I dunno.

I suppose it's my (still congealing) contention that right now, Apple deliberately keeps .Mac a dim-witted, sleeping giant. It's so unsexy, broken, and behind-the-times right now as to seem like a product out of a less forward-thinking company.

But what happens when that giant wakes up, stretches, and then starts standing in the middle of every single product Apple (and its partners) have to sell? It's so mind-boggling to consider the implications, especially given that it stands as one of the few persuasive explanations for why such a smart company would stay so quiet for so long about allowing a premium pay service go to seed this badly.

I think something is up. Big time.

But, what do you think?

Am I high? Will Apple make .Mac the center of their consumer offering? Or will it just continue to frustrate its paying customers until Google replicates all its services for free? What did you see in the tea leaves after the keynote?

fuzzybunny88's picture

One Ring to bind them all

I read this entry a few days ago & listened to MBW this morning and I really hope that Merlin's onto something here. .Mac could be so much more than it is (and it could work so much better than it does).

Could .mac be the locus of the new media & future of home computing/entertainment? I like the idea of weaving iTunes into some .mac in the clouds idea, especially one where users could buy/rent content on a portable device (apple TV or iPhone) where that syncs back to .mac & could be moved easily to other devices registered to the same user/family. Does .mac become the One Ring to bind them all in the Apple media world (apple TV, iPhone, iPods, etc.). Will Jobs start insisting that we call him Celebrimbor?

The moving documents around I'm interested in, but it's not a game changing thing for me - with an 8 gig thumb drive, I can pretty much move a butt load of documents around with me in the space of a stick of gum. It's klugey but it works. Granted there's some marginal utility in being able to look at my pdf of last year's tax return to grab some details if I'm sitting in the loan officer's cube, but, again, it's not a game changer.

Having my music/movies/media accessible anywhere? Now THAT could be interesting. I've always resented the MPAA/RIAAs viewpoint that they think they can control (i.e., make me repurchase) DVDs I already own just because I now want to watch them on my iPod. Seems to me that they didn't care (& can't control) whether I decide to watch a DVD on the Panasonic player in my family room or the Toshiba player in the bedroom. Why should there be a different answer if I want to watch it on my iPod - I'm simply choosing the physical medium by which I will exercise my license to watch the movie. Anyway, that sort of legalistic crap needs to get worked out (in consumers' favor) before .mac could be all it should be.

Other things that make me think we're a ways away from .mac achieving all this: bandwidth limitations - so long as Comcast, et al are able to "manage" their net traffic, consumers aren't really going to be able to have video on demand. I'm not sure how far out we are on a solution to that. Second - .mac space on their server would have to be tons larger than what it is now. 10 gigs is a couple of movies and a little music - for this to be effective, consumers would have to fairly inexpensively have access to 50, 75 gigs or more, probably much more.




An Oblique Strategy:
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